Nick's Gaming Blog

Reflections on the Schizophrenic Personality of Blacksite: Area 51

Black guy? Check. Tough badass (and possibly skinhead?) with excessive tribal tattoos? Check. Another average white male like yourself? Check. Game about to go where quite a few games have gone before? Check.

Blacksite: Area 51 can succinctly be likened to that that less-than-intelligent friend of yours (and if you’re hanging around with a group of people that are all smarter than you, consider this your belated suggestion to find new friends) who frequently misuses large “SAT equivalent” vocabulary terms in a futile attempt to appear smarter. See, Blacksite (and very effectively, I might add) marketed their title to two different demographics. “Hardcore” gamers and gaming blog frequenters like myself were told that we were going to get a narrative FPS, along the lines of Bioshock and The Darkness, with storyline that was multi-layered (but not in a HALO “nobody reads the stupid fanfic or paperback shit novels” or cares about the tech mumbo-jumbo sort of way). The other targeted market was the “HALO crowd needing another fix” demographic…and it’s a disturbingly large and growing group…that only needed to be shown a thirty second TV spot with a gas tanker or two exploding, and after heaving down a handful of Ritalin, begged their parents to buy it for Christmas. I’ve put the trailer right below, for your viewing convenience:

And, much like Hirohito and Hitler, Midway Games prayed that these two groups would never meet; that the elitist hipsters and adrenaline junkies would keep to their respective “lanes” lest the world implode. They figured that us bloggers would never look up to watch cable tv or, worse, get our gaming news from X-PLAY, and that the Halo junkies would never view the Internet as anything more than a glorified portal to the world of pornography. And…to a greater extent…they were right. And while neither party involved was shocked to the extent of “Hey, you stuck your shitty Halo knock-off in my narrative fps” or vice versa, both were quite surprised with how shittily their respective element was integrated. Blacksite’s story goes something like this: *SPOILERS* You’re the leader of an elite squad of…blah…blah…blah…that is in Iraq clearing out a chemical testing facility that results in the stock enemy of the game switching from the ever-recently popular “terrorist” to the age-old favorite of “mutated supersoldier.” Your superiors of course write it off as being complications of encephalitis, something that I didn’t exactly buy, despite my extensive medical knowledge amounting to playing Operation! by Parker Bros. as a kid. Several years later your team is reassembled to find out why the US military has lost contact with the original squad that was send to dispose of a heavily-armed militia camped out in an abandoned military facility in Area 51. Here’s a tip…nobody has ever “lost contact” in an action game/film because they forgot to charge their phone the night before. You’re chosen, of course, because you were the last people to actually fight the aliens that the military accidentally neglects to mention.

See, the disturbing thing is there are usually much scarier things lurking around in trailer parks…things that also happen to be registered on the sex offenders list.

From here, the storyline can best be expressed by the phrase “I can’t believe that my government would do that…but they did.” For those of us who haven’t watched the world engage in mutually assured destruction over the past several decades or (insert joke about watching copious amounts of Fox News here) you might actually utter this. The rest of you, being the intelligent and hip gaming community that you are, may find the game’s agenda a little…overt. If Bioshock stealthily entered the doors of our conscious mind to warn us about the dangers of a laissez faire society, Midway’s critique of the US government is employing a titanium-coated battering ram. If you’re already showing, than why the hell are you telling? These are the basic principles of narrative construction that we learned in grade school, people. Either give us a basic, but succinct reason for why I am killing a large amount of digital beings, and then leave me to my massacre of polygons…or provide me with a carefully constructed narrative that doesn’t insult the player’s intelligence.

The graphics are proof that Epic’s Unreal engine is capable of looking good, though not stunning, when in the hands of someone other than its own creators. Character models, like those of Dr. Noa Weis and Grayson, are detailed and well animated. Environments tend to suffer from a lack of variety (Iraq and New Mexico just happen to look the same to me, at least from a desert standpoint) but they are also of a good graphical fidelity, if just uninspired.

Note to developers: the Unreal engine will keep your game from looking like an unholy shitstorm of pixelated mess, but it will not make your game stand out. All of the pixel shaders and bump mapping in the world cannot compensate for a lack of talent in the artistic dept. Bad games have licensed it (Hour of Victory, Turok) as well as good ones (Bioshock, Mass Effect) so to say that the Unreal Engine can “make or break” a game is absolutely ridiculous. In the case of Blacksite, let it be said that all the impressive features of Unreal will not automatically root out all of the glitches in this game: enemies getting stuck on walls, weapons dropped by enemies that happen to float in the air, like cheesy power-ups in Contra, allies that apparently have developed teleportative abilites in their free time. These are simple, fixable things, weapons that fall where the corpse that previously held them did, isn’t a newfound phenomenon, and it’s certainly not something that should be accepted in a next-gen title.

Please, PLEASE note the Saddam poster in the upper left, I missed it when I was playing

The sound elements have much in common with the visual presentation; a mantra of ‘solid, but not memorable” is the most fitting. There isn’t an “Andrew Ryan” performance here, but neither is there the grating voice acting of the
Resident Evil series. Equally “hit and miss’ is the dialogue. For every time your boneheaded squadmate follows up shooting his gun by saying “Made in America, baby!” only to have your more astute member remind him that, in actuality, the weapon was made in Germany, you have your “dime a dozen” machismo-riddled zingers like “that one won’t be getting up,” “BOOM” and etc.

While Blacksite is thankfully a “pick up and play” title (again, if that’s what you’re looking for) that’s no guarantee that you’ll be putting this title into the disc tray once you’ve routed this human/alien hybrid threat. Sure, there are dossier files hidden around each level that give backstory on weapons, character bios, and newspaper clippings that attempt to tie over Blacksite and its predecessor, Area 51, but not only are they not that interesting, but with the levels being highly linear and limited in scope and scale, it’s hard not to miss then on a first playthrough of the game. I myself finished the game with about 87% of them without necessarily trying. Also present is the obligatory “if there’s a shooter, than there has to be” multiplayer. It suffices to say that its got your usual modes of carnage-laden combat, and brings nothing new to the table.

Overall synopsis: I’ve played games both better and worse than Blacksite. However, games in both categories were also much more memorable than Blacksite. It does just enough to stay above the standard set for a decent title, from a presentation standpoint, but lacks the polish (ie, technical glitches, underutilized squad morale system) to take steps towards the ever-elusive town of “Goodgamesville.” If the price drops to twenty, and you need a “filler” for CoD or Halo, consider it. Otherwise, there are much better shooters, and much better games in general, to be found in the Xbox 360′s software portfolio.

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